Shelved It #5 – Akiba’s Beat

More information from XSEED/Acquire

  • Genre: ARPG
  • Platform: PS4
  • Also Available On: Vita
  • Main Reason for Shelving: No reward grind

TL;DR

  • Lots of unnecessary re-traversal of dungeons for no reward
  • Gameplay is a lot different than previous title; Akiba’s Trip
    • Despite differences, solid ARPG gameplay reminiscent of the Tales of series.
  • Simple, but solid visual style with distinct dungeon designs

As the first RPG that Acquire has made, Akiba’s Beat is pulling ideas from other series in an attempt to provide some familiar gameplay, but in doing so it stumbled in the thing that can determine the quality of a lot of ARPGs and JRPGs; the grind between main story points.  While this one shows a lot of potential for the studio to continue doing RPGs in the future, it just didn’t provide enough incentive to continue through to the end with so many other quality RPGs available.

For anyone that has played Akiba’s Trip, the most obvious difference here is the gameplay.  Rather than being an action-heavy game reminiscent of a light-hearted Musou game, this is now very much a Tales of style ARPG.  The battle system is solid, but definitely not doing anything original.  Battles take place in a flat plane where the player moves side to side toward a targeted enemy, activating physical attack combos and skill attacks.  They can dodge in any direction, and unlock movement from the side to side movement to reposition in 3D space.  Yep, it’s pretty much a 1:1 copy of the battle system used in games like Tales of Vesperia, rather than the more free form systems in newer titles.  It even brings in the AI tactics system to set the skill type, resource usage, and target priority of the Tails games.  The fortunate thing is that this battle system still is extremely fun to play, and while fighting level appropriate monsters, is easily the high point of the game.

The 1:1 copy syndrome also extends to the story.  The core story revolves around Akihabara being stuck in an endless Sunday loop (hello Groundhog Day) in which people’s delusions manifest in Akiba, causing shenanigans to occur (hello Persona 5).  The main problem is that the story and characters just aren’t as good as Persona 5.  The core cast are basically rigid anime tropes, covering things like overly happy idols, brooding NEETS, the always positive athletic girl, etc.  The plot twists are telegraphed too hard, and the consequences of the cast’s actions are sort of brushed aside out of necessity.  In general, the story works, but it’s not going to blow anyone away, particularly when it’s to some extent copying a phenomenally good game that literally just came out.

The unfortunate thing is that the story ended up being the main drag factor on progression.  I put no reward grind as the shelving reason, but I don’t mean that in the typical JRPG fashion.  I wasn’t grinding to get levels, because typically I was around a pretty appropriate level for the things I was fighting.  As the story progressed, they forced you to retraverse the past dungeons repeatedly, typically all the way to the end room.  However, XP gained scales significantly down as the level gap between the monsters and cast increased, so retraversing the dungeons ended up being more of an exercise of how many battles I could avoid, rather than continuing to push the entertaining battle system.  This could have been fixed in any number of ways, whether allowing quick travel to story points, or even scaling up enemies to give players incentive to continue to fight in the dungeons they’ve already been in.  In the end, the story forcing retraversal was the game’s downfall, as it provided a lot of slow down and no reward.

That said, the dungeon visual designs were another high point in the game.  Like Persona 5, they took the concept of a person’s delusions quite literally, heavily theming the dungeon visuals around the person’s personality.  They were always visually pleasing, and really hit a high mark for playing with bright colors and strong designs.  Just for a quick couple of examples:

When the owner of the delusion was a cafe maid, the entire delusion was a twisted interpretation of what a maid cafe would look like.

For the audio hardware guy’s delusion, we got speakers, vacuum tubes, and visual equalizer’s in the skybox to fit the theme.

In general, Akiba’s Beat is a game that doesn’t necessarily do a lot of things that wrong, and isn’t that far from being a highly enjoyable game.  The things it does right, visually and gameplay-wise, it really hits high marks for.  Unfortunately, this is still an RPG, and the story failings immediately bring it down to the status of not worth finishing.  Given Acquire’s past experience with action games (Tenchu, Way of the Samurai, Akiba’s Trip), the change to a more formal RPG structure definitely seems to have tripped them up a bit, but if they take the right lessons from what went wrong here, they may be on to something with the genre change in the future.

Game Ramblings #37 – Mass Effect: Andromeda

More Info from EA

  • Genre: ARPG/Third Person Shooter
  • Platform: PS4
  • Also Available On: PC (Origin), Xbox One

I’ll be the first to admit that I thought the original Mass Effect trilogy was not as good as most people thought it was.  While I definitely enjoyed the games, they always struck me as being solid, but not overwhelmingly good ARPGs.  Their combat was always the high point for me, but I never considered it up there with the quality of a typical Bioware title, let alone even being their best sci-fi series.  With that being said, you can expect that I came into this with a lot lower expectations than a lot of the general internet public, and I suspect my impressions of Andromeda will also follow that.

It’s somewhat appropriate that this is the first Mass Effect that the newer Montreal team is working on, as in a lot of ways, this game follows a similar pattern to the original Mass Effect.  It’s very distinctly a start to something bigger that will be established in future titles.  The story starts to establish a lot of starting threads, but only hints at the larger problems that future games will definitely establish.  The gameplay has also leaned back toward the original, with a lot more emphasis on exploration of open environments while travelling around in a vehicle, rather than the more structured linear levels that the later games started to head towards.  At the same time, it shows a lot of rough edges like the original that I can only assume will be worked out as the team gets their feet under them on titles of such large scope.  So, in the end is the game actually good?

The core combat is definitely a high point here.  The core of the combat is still there from the original trilogy, with the core third-person shooter elements backed up by the use of biotic and tech-based powers.  Like the originals, the skills are earned and powered up via skill points given when leveling up.  Where I think things start to depart is that the Montreal team has leaned even heavier into the action elements that the first game sometimes had a tendency to avoid.

There’s no longer options at all to pause and aim mid-combat, so there is significantly less time spent in menus queuing up skills.  These are now loaded into profiles that can be hot-swapped, allowing you to setup a number of preset configurations based on what style of loadout you need.  It also felt like there was a much larger emphasis on dodge and cover mechanics, with enemies flanking me within encounters, leading me to jump between cover on the fly as I was picking off enemy targets.

Especially important is that the guns feel fantastic.   The weapons I used felt like they were appropriately powerful, with steady but manageable amounts of recoil, stat-modifiable accuracy, and obvious power.  I largely did a soldier main-class build, so most of my upgrades were in supporting weapon damage and my own defense stats, so my main emphasis wasn’t on heavy use of skills, but in finding weapons that I was able to quickly and efficiently remove targets from the encounters.  While I ended up finding a handful of favorite weapon types that I was most comfortable with, each weapon category had a large variety of individual types.  For example, assault rifles had anything from high rate of fire pray and spray weapons, to small magazine burst fire, to single-shot pseudo rifles.  This variety extended through the other types as well, so I’d imagine it would be hard to not find some weapons you like, whether you want to use sniper rifles to pick off enemies from a distance, or shotguns to get up close for big damage.  Also worth noting is that you can hybridize a lot of weapons through mods, adding anything from scopes to stabilizers to bring aspects of your favorites to other weapons.

Where things really started to lose their shine was when I was out of combat.  While the core lore surrounding the Andromeda galaxy was interesting, the individual character interactions ranged from simply being decent to being downright bad.  The voice acting in general was all over the place, with a lot of the larger moments accentuated by lifeless voiceovers.  It’s also worth noting that the larger internet complaints about the facial animations are pretty accurate.  I’m not going to fault the team that much for going with a more procedural-based animation system given the scope of the game, but it’s pretty clear the system could have used some more time cooking.  It also didn’t help them that Frostbite games in general have never handled facial animation that well (seriously, take a look at Mirror’s Edge Catalyst), and you can really see the weakness of the engine in trying to handle heavily story-based content.

The lack of polish also extends to the UI.  There’s a number of places where the UI flow just did not work well at all.  Crafting was generally a chore, having to first learn recipes, then back out to a different screen to craft them.  Comparing items within the inventory was a crap shoot at best.  The scanning of worlds within the galaxy map was an extremely slow process, despite the inclusion of a cutscene skip button within the last patch.  This is on top of the fact that pretty much any of the game’s soft locks that I ran into happened because the UI would get into a bad state and block input into other areas.  I’ve heard from more than one developer that this is not an uncommon problem with Frostbite, so again this goes back to an unfortunate situation where the engine seems to not really be ready for this kind of large scale single-player experience.

In the end my opinion of Andromeda is really not much different than my opinion of the original trilogy.  Without a doubt this game has some rough edges, and definitely should have had another 3-6 months to clean some things up.  That said, I absolutely enjoyed the experience, and got 50 hours out of it before hitting the end of the game.  If there’s anything that I think is unfortunate about the situation, it’s that the team was probably stuck between a rock and a hard place here.  EA very likely mandated release in March to beat the end of their fiscal year.  They also definitely mandated the use of Frostbite 3 over UE3 or UE4, so there was a complete loss of knowledge of the toolset used to make the original trilogy.

Hopefully by the time Andromeda 2 comes out, development will be a bit cleaner, but at least for now we’re starting off in a place where things can grow into something great.  If nothing else, they can lean on the combat systems they’ve built and go from there.

Game Ramblings #36 – Horizon: Zero Dawn

More Info from Guerrilla Games

  • Platform: PS4
  • Genre: Open World Action/Adventure

I really felt like I need to hold off on posting this for a while.  It’s not that the game was bad; realistically it’s already likely to be top 5 for the year.  It’s not that I was necessarily unexcited to finish; I really felt compelled to keep going through the story missions.  It’s just that the end of the game so entirely infuriated me that I didn’t think I could give this one a fair shot right in writing if I didn’t let things settle for a while.  If there’s any crime that this game was actually guilty of, it was coming out the same week as Breath of the Wild, which at minimum provided a hugely good benchmark to compare it against.  Luckily Zero Dawn didn’t stumble, even if their launch timing was pretty poor.  So with that said, let’s get the good out of the way first, because there’s two main things I really want to rant about, but are ultimately unimportant to the quality of the game.

This game really nailed the future post-apocalypse setting in a way that a lot of games fail to do.  It mixes a fantastically beautiful open world landscape with very obviously hi-tech robotic enemies to fight against to provide a great starting background for a people that are obviously not the ones in control of the technology.  As the story unfolds, it becomes a fantastic telling of an AI clearly gone wrong, and how the world came to be in the state that it’s in.  By mixing in obvious landmarks, scannable audio and holographic logs, and ruins of cities of the past, the world’s depth grows in a way that I’ve only rarely seen in games like the Metroid Prime series.

This world is backed by an open world gameplay style that definitely hits more than it misses.  There’s definitely some typical trappings of open world games – towers that reveal the map, optional items scattered around to collect, hidden dungeons to explore – but it’s nothing that gets in the way, and the developers at Guerrilla definitely minimized their use to avoid some of the tiring grind that I would typically see of the genre.  The real highlight though is the robots that you fight.  These start as small as small as elk, big cats, or hyena type robots that can be stealth killed.  From there things grow tremendously until you’re fighting gigantic crocs, T-Rexes, and huge eagles.

The larger monsters themselves greatly depend on the use of ranged weapons, and this is where a lot of the weapon upgrade path is focused.  There’s things like your typical bow and arrow, providing decent damage on the run.  There’s more focused heavy-damage bows that trade much slower reload for heavy damage or heavy part stripping capabilities.  There’s slings that can throw various grenades with different elemental, sticky, or proximity attack characteristics.  There’s even a set of crossbow-style weapons that let you lay rope traps in preparation for taking down an enemy.  Despite all being ranged weapons, the tremendous breadth of capabilities means a normal fight may have you switching between three or four weapons on the fly, stunning an enemy, laying some traps while it’s down, then taking out pieces of its armor until it’s dead.  There becomes a pretty strong rhythm to the normal fights that gets hit here that most open world games have never really gotten this right.

The unfortunate thing is that my overall enjoyment was clouded realistically by two things that should not have been a big deal.

The first problem I ran into was the lack of melee weapon progression.  You gain your first melee weapon right at the start of the game, using it for close-in attacks, as well as single shot stealth kills.  This becomes a tremendously fun way to get kills early on in the game, luring enemies into tall grass and killing them in one blow.  However, beyond a handful of small skill point upgrades, there is no melee weapon upgrade until very nearly the end of the game.  As the enemies you face become stronger, even smaller enemies can no longer be one shot, so I ultimately started avoiding packs of enemies because the risk vs. reward was no longer worth getting into multi-enemy fights.

The second main problem was the general design of the boss fights.  Pretty much without exception all the boss fights were just kind of boring.  The fights pretty much all followed the pattern of

  1. Cluttered circularish arena with too many things that block dodge rolls
  2. Giant enemy with predictable patterns
  3. No reason to move into melee range because the melee weapon sucks against bosses and ranged is much safer

Ultimately though, I would get through the boss fights because exploring the rest of the world around me was just so much damn fun, and it made it worth playing the game.  At least it gives them some things to clean up for the sequel.